Visitors to Berlin can rent the East
German-made Trabi for a nostalgic ride.
The last thing I generally want to do in a strange city is get
behind the wheel of a car and navigate unfamiliar streets. But this
sounded like too much fun. For less than the cost of a tank of gas,
I could tool around the streets of Berlin in a Trabant, the
plastic-bodied rattletrap of a car manufactured in East Germany
from the late 1950s until the Wall came down.
Powered by a unique smoke-belching, two-stroke engine, the
“Trabi” spits and sputters like an old jalopy; her gearshift knob
trembles as if stricken with a bad case of the DTs. The back seat
is so cramped that a tall passenger must sit splay-legged and hunch
down so as not to bump his head.
The Trabi has no fuel gauge, so the only way to find out how
much petrol remains is to lower a dipstick into the gas tank. Once
rubber hits the road, der Trabi shows herself to be in no hurry;
her 26-horsepower engine takes a full 21 seconds to go from 0 to 60
Despite or perhaps because of her considerable shortcomings, the
Trabi is much beloved. In Germany and beyond, this clumsy-looking
Communist-era relic has spawned aficionados’ clubs, meet-up events
and Web sites brimming with affectionate tributes and even insider
jokes: “What do you call a Trabi on a mountain? A miracle.” Or,
“How do you double the value of a Trabi? Fill ’er up.”
The Trabi’s popularity is part of the phenomenon called ostalgie,
the German word for nostalgia for East Germany. Deutschlanders are
embracing anew products like Vita Cola, a Coca Cola knock-off, and
Spreewald Gherkins, the pickles that figured prominently in the hit
ostalgie film, “Good Bye Lenin!”
Last year saw the opening of the DDR Museum in Berlin, where
visitors can learn about daily life as lived by ordinary East
Germans. Set in an appropriately drab, concrete-slab building on
the Spree River, the museum features a faithful reproduction of a
government-allocated flat, the blue jeans that served as inferior
substitutes for costly, black-market Levis, and a creme-colored
Trabant 601 that visitors are welcome to crawl into.
While the dark side of life in the German Democratic Republic is
represented by a display of Stasi surveillance equipment, most
visitors leave the museum with a new appreciation for how East
Germans lived, laughed and loved, even under the iron fist of a
repressive regime. Particularly memorable is the corner of the
museum devoted to nudist culture in the GDR.
Berlin has no shortage of exhibits that lay bare all the the
grim details of 20th-century history. On a recent visit, I took in
several: the Holocaust Memorial’s somber field of gray, stone
slabs; the Topography of Terror’s exposition on Nazi repression and
annihilation; and the Berlin Wall Memorial’s sad tribute to those
who died trying to escape to the West.
Later, I jumped in a taxi for the short ride to Checkpoint
Charlie, where I would meet up with a tour operator called Trabi
Safari, which makes it possible for visitors to experience Berlin
and Dresden from behind the wheel of one of the most enduring
symbols of East Germany.
We would be a caravan of seven brightly colored Trabis. I slid
into a yellow, 1980’s model with new vinyl upholstery and 90,000
miles on the odometer. After a quick briefing on the somewhat
confusing gearshift pattern and a cheerful send-off from my young
instructor, I was ready to roll. I depressed the clutch, fumbled my
way into first gear, and lurched into the lane of traffic behind a
purple Trabi crammed with four Munich engineers in town for a
As our caravan snaked past Berlin’s big sights, Johann, our
guide, provided running commentary (in German and English) from his
vantage point in the lead car. I listened via a crackly-sounding,
dashboard-mounted radio. At each stoplight, the car shuddered a few
times as if to stall out, but even after 90 minutes, my trusty
Trabi never let me down.